It’s straight out of Homeland, the Showtime thriller about Al Qaeda and clandestine intrigue. Or think Robert Redford in the mind-blowing Three Days of the Condor, about a bookish CIA analyst trapped in a web of corruption who tells all to The New York Times.

We don’t know what happened to Redford’s character. But when ex-CIA counterterrorism operative John Kiriakou revealed to ABC News in 2007 that the United States was torturing prisoners, and that the torture was not a rogue operation but was approved at the highest levels of U.S. government, it landed him in prison.

Incredibly, Kiriakou is the only American convicted in connection with CIA torture. His crime wasn’t that he tortured anyone, because he didn’t. It was that he blew the whistle on illegal government actions. If you’re wondering, the federal whistleblower protection law does not apply to “national security.”

In 2013, Kiriakou accepted a plea bargain and did two years in federal prison rather than risk a conviction that might’ve gotten him 45. That he was guilty of nothing didn’t matter to the government’s spy agencies, which are unflinching when it comes to self-protection.

You may be surprised to learn that Kiriakou was not charged by the Bush administration’s Justice Department. With the CIA pushing for its pound of flesh, the Obama Justice Department continued to “investigate.” In 2012, the DOJ charged Kiriakou with espionage and two lesser offenses. After racking up $1 million in legal bills, he copped to sharing the name of a CIA officer with a journalist.

This, even though in 2012, Kiriakou was working for then-senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry as chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In other words, it looked like Kiriakou was in the clear, until he wasn’t. But when he wasn’t, Kiriakou says, “I got no help from John Kerry.”

It took Sen. John McCain, a Republican who was himself tortured while a war prisoner, to finally declare last year that the torture revealed by Kiriakou “stained our national honor.”

Kiriakou was released in February. He was in the Triangle last week talking to campus groups and N.C. Stop Torture Now. Hearing him, I was stunned by how ordinary his story is, and how extraordinary.

We throw the word hero around so lightly. This man is a genuine American hero, and we should know what he did and why.

Kiriakou was recruited into the CIA out of graduate school based on his work in Middle East studies and, due to family lineage, his fluency in Greek and Arabic. For seven years, he was an analyst, focused on Iraq. Bored, he switched to the operations side in the late ’90s, running spy networks for the CIA’s counterterrorism center.


Until September 11, 2001, Kiriakou says, the CIA was principally involved with recruiting spies and passing intelligence to analysts, who advised government agencies. After 9/11, it morphed into a paramilitary organization bent on stopping attacks before they happened.

Like all top CIA staffers, Kiriakou volunteered for duty against Al Qaeda. In early 2002, he was sent to Pakistan as chief of counterterrorism operations. His job: Run the raids that rounded up bad guys, usually netting “hapless nobodies and illiterate teenagers” sent by Al Qaeda from Yemen, Libya or Algeria who’d agreed to fight on the promise of money for their families if they were killed, he says.

But one night, solid intelligence paid off, and Kiriakou’s raiders caught Abu Zubaydah, a confidant of Osama bin Laden. Zubaydah was badly wounded. As Kiriakou tells it, getting him patched upwhile Al Qaeda fighters machine-gunned the hospitaland onto a helicopter bound for an undisclosed location required some serious derring-do.

He never saw Zubaydah again.

Kiriakou was promoted and brought back to Washington, where he was “read in” on a half-dozen ultra-secret operations, including our use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., waterboarding and other, arguably worse methods of torture.

He knew they were illegal, but he kept his mouth shut for three years, he says. But in 2007, after he’d left the CIA, he got a call from ABC News. A source had said that Kiriakou tortured Abu Zubaydah. Not true, Kiriakou replied.

Days later, President Bush denied that the United States tortured prisoners. But, Bush added soon after, if torture happened, it must’ve been a rogue CIA operative.

Uh-oh. Kiriakou feared that the White House was about to make him the patsy. Why him? Possibly because, years before, he’d taken a call from ABC, at a colleague’s request, and confirmed a story the colleague had provided “on background.” What story? That Vice President Dick Cheney was the driving force behind invading Iraq.

So Kiriakou agreed to be interviewed by ABC’s Brian Ross, and his choice was whether to deny all knowledge or, if asked, tell what he knew. Ross asked, and Kiriakou answered truthfully.

It almost wrecked his life. His wife, a CIA analyst, was fired. They have five kids. They were on welfare, briefly, before she found other work. But they toughed it out, Kiriakou says. And today, he is unbowed. “I was right about torture,” he says. I was right, and I’m glad I said something.”

And, he argues, “It shouldn’t be illegal to expose an illegality.”

Eight years and a Senate investigation later, we know that torture was CIA policy, and we know how useless it was. Is it still happening? Kiriakou doesn’t think so.

Instead of torture, we use drones and don’t bother with the questions.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The tortured truth”